Thursday, May 17, 2001

Study shows unfunded mandates

Panel kept Ohio report on schools under wraps for seven months

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Controversy erupted at the Statehouse Wednesday when a legislative report surfaced showing the state has imposed $514 million in new programs on schools over the years without paying for them.

        The study — and the fact it was kept hidden for seven months — could hurt Republican lawmakers' arguments this June before the Supreme Court that schools have been adequately funded. The court has ordered the state to pay the costs of unfunded mandates.

        Democrats said the Legislative Service Commission's decision to withhold the report shows the agency is not providing non-partisan information as directed.

        Minority Leader Jack Ford, D-Toldeo, said it's bad enough that the state has forced schools to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for unfunded mandates. He said the commission's decision to keep many lawmakers in the dark has tainted the entire process.

        Justices “have to be shaking their heads as to what is going on over here at the Statehouse, that (the Republicans) keep screwing this up,” he said.

        Members of the Legislative Service Commission contend the report was not released because it was flawed and inaccurate. Still, the commission has appointed a four-member panel to investigate.

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, who also serves as commission chairman, acknowledged mistakes were made.

        “Everything doesn't always work smoothly. They screwed up,” he said.

        He said the organization planned to release the school-funding report last November, but failed to notify the legislature it would be late.

        “I don't condone that we were not told what was going on,” he said.

        The study became public after Democrats received a tip about its existence from a commission employee. Senate Minority Leader Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, said the employee was told that “information should not be released because it could influence political debates and the election.”

        Republicans had hoped to defeat Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick in the November election but failed. Ms. Resnick has voted with a 4-3 majority that found Ohio schools unconstitutional because they are unfairly funded.

        The high court gave lawmakers until June 15 to eliminate unfunded mandates on schools and bring poor schools up to par.

        Mr. Fingerhut said the initial documents he received from the commission were stripped of the numbers that had been in the original report. In addition, he said, the documents were delivered with a hostile message: A man told one of his staff members, “Your (expletive) reports are on the way.”

        Commission Director Robert Shapiro apologized for the outburst.

        Democrats called for Mr. Shapiro's resignation, saying the integrity of the Legislative Service Commission is at stake.

        The commission “has become a political organization making political decisions,” said Senate Minority Leader Leigh Herington, D-Ravenna. “His gross statement to a female staff member, the words he used, are not acceptable anywhere.”

        Despite the controversy over the commission, Republicans played down the importance of the report. They said lawmakers have already acted to relieve schools of unfunded mandates.

        Educators, however, don't buy that argument. John Fernbaugh, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials, said school treasurers across Ohio know all too well the state doesn't pay its share.

        “The costs you have to pick up that the state doesn't help you with you can't even imagine,” he said.


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